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Manitoba History: High Stakes and Hard Times: Herb Lake and Depression-Era Mining in Northern Manitoba

by Will Steinburg
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Number 68, Spring 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Don’t you know that for two hundred and fifty years Canadians have been puddling along on the southern rim of a country as rich as any country in the world and have handed the rest of it over to a company of moneyed Englishmen who never saw Canada and never give a tinker’s damn if they ever do or not. God Almighty’s going to give Canada the next hundred years to make good in…We’ve got enough fish in the lakes north of the Saskatchewan to feed the rest of the world week-days and Fridays. There’s more good salmon in the Hudson’s Bay than they ever dreamed of in Alaska or British Columbia. There’s enough water power here in one province to turn every wheel, light every house and every street in the village from Halifax to Vancouver. There’s timber and stone and minerals—why, God bless my soul, it isn’t a question of whether the stuff’s here or not. It’s a question of whether we’re packing the kind of stuff here [pointing to his belt]…That’s where we stand! [1]

This excerpt from Manitoban author Douglas Durkin’s 1921 novel The Lobstick Trail will seem a bit unusual to modern readers, particularly for the self-assured tone and outlandish claims of its speaker, the novel’s hero Kirk Bradner. Bradner’s speech expresses a kind of wild optimism for northern settlement that seems naïve and out of place today. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, this sort of boosterism and romance of the north was commonplace. Like many newcomers to Manitoba’s frontier in that period, Bradner imagines that the north is a land waiting impatiently to be subdued; that it contains a treasure trove of resources that will make the province productive and prosperous; and that it is missing only the right addition of people and infrastructure to unlock this potential. Bradner’s utopian vision is telling of how southern Manitobans generally viewed the provincial north during the Depression: while boosters presented a land of untapped, unimaginable potential on the one hand, on the other their promises and appeals expose a fractured and malfunctioning society in need of reassurance and security. The First World War had been hard on Canadians and Manitobans particularly. General economic malaise followed the war and later came the Great Depression. Many homesteaders and labourers were forced from their homes. In these troubled times Manitoba’s northern frontier afforded southern society the room and resources it needed to adjust to abrupt economic and social change. In this period, the hinterland acted as a release valve, absorbing some of society’s most disadvantaged people. In order to escape harsh economic conditions in the south, many poor, alienated and unemployed individuals flooded into the north during the Depression. At the same time this exodus occurred, the provincial north was also a refuge for commercial interests. New space was opened up for well-connected companies to expand their business in the form of large industrial mines and company towns. In the 1930s, both extremes of the economic spectrum were well represented in the north, but they did not often overlap. They existed in separate communities, formed on fundamentally different philosophies and shaped by drastically different methods of production. It can be said that every northern community reflects its founders in significant ways, that each town is an expression of its founders’ beliefs and their needs. The goal of this article is to explain the exodus of mostly poor, alienated southerners to the north, and to show how a community that they created represented their beliefs and circumstances in a distinctive way. In the Canadian north, company towns have dominated the scene, but this article is meant to highlight the lives of men and women who did not settle in company towns during the 1920s and 1930s. The focal point of their northern exodus was the small mining town of Herb Lake that developed along the east shore of Wekusko Lake (near present day Snow Lake, 150 km northeast of The Pas). There they created a haven from the Depression. The migrants who settled in Herb Lake bargained on little more than an expectation of gold and relied mainly on their own industry. As an engine of wealth creation their town was an abject failure, but it’s unlikely existence was a surprise that begs some explanation.

The road to Herb Lake, circa 1918.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, John A. Campbell Collection, #40.

A Typical Resource Town?

Herb Lake was the last, and perhaps the only, resource town in Manitoba created by independent miners of limited means. It is also a fairly typical example of the numerous mining boomtowns that developed across the Canadian north before 1930. These were created on an ad hoc basis in response to large mineral discoveries and the rush of prospectors that they attracted. As in all other resource towns, every aspect of life in Herb Lake was governed by the resource the townspeople extracted and the means they used to extract it. Since the means of extraction was mainly controlled by individuals, development in Herb Lake proceeded in a helter-skelter fashion as scattered individual entrepreneurs acted without much direction or any reference to an overall plan. Like many early mining towns, Herb Lake began as a loose assortment of poorly constructed tents and bunkhouses and transformed gradually into a community.

In 1914, Richard Woosey and M. J. Hacket discovered a vein of gold-bearing quartz on the east shore of Wekusko (Herb) Lake that contained “free gold.” News of this find drew a rush of prospectors into the area, and in a short time “the whole shore of the lake north of the [Woosey] claims and for some distance in was staked.” [2] Initially a number of promising claims were made in the area, but as the region’s inhabitants would eventually discover, these finds were not representative of the area’s generally low-grade, unprofitable ore.

Cabin of Richard “Dick” Woosey who, in 1914, discovered a vein of gold-bearing quartz on the east shore of Wekusko (Herb) Lake.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, John A. Campbell Collection, #13.

Manitoba’s Mining Boom and the Impetus for Settlement

At the outset, enthusiasm for the Herb Lake area seemed reasonable. During this period, Manitoba experienced a mining boom that has since been unmatched for size and scope in the province’s history. After the war, resource towns were being created all across the province’s north: Flin Flon, Bissett, Pine Falls and Sherridon are just some examples. Attesting to the impressive scale of the province’s mining boom, Jim Mochoruk notes that “in 1928 alone [the height of the boom period], almost 11,000 new mineral claims had been staked in Manitoba. Sixty-eight new mining companies had been formed under provincial law, and thirty-two out-of-province syndicates had set up shop in Manitoba.” [3] Enthusiasts and experts had every reason to believe that the mining potential of Manitoba was only just beginning to be realized. Promoters bragged of “mineral wealth” in the province “of such promise as to put Manitoba on the map as a mineral producer.” [4] The war effort had also elevated the mining industry to a “matter of great national importance” for the “manufacture of munitions.” [5] The province’s vast stores of strategic minerals—nickel, copper, and zinc—were sure to bring increased prosperity to Manitoba just as they had in Ontario and Quebec. Within this context, Herb Lake flourished and its future seemed assured.

Meanwhile, after The First World War declining wheat prices and drought forced foreclosure on many farmers. At roughly the same time, industrial unemployment rose to unprecedented levels. [6] As farms and factories closed down, many working-class Canadians and recent immigrants left their homes behind to pursue self-employment and short-term wage labour in the developing north. Their exodus to the north was aided by steadily rising fur prices and pre-war railroad projects that had opened up vast stretches of “new” territory to prospectors and trappers. This unusual movement from urban to rural areas continued right into the Great Depression.

The presence of “free gold” in Herb Lake was a major draw for Depression migrants. Along with furs and fish, free gold was one of the first resources to be exploited on the northern frontier. This is because a “free,” or “placer,” gold deposit is one that an individual or small group can successfully carry to production without much initial capital investment. [7] It can be extracted and transported easily, using simple, affordable tools and machinery. Gold mining of this kind is perfectly suited to people of limited means working in remote areas. For a minimum of overhead costs mining, prospecting and trapping provided a reliable livelihood with potentially huge rewards. A full set of prospecting tools, for example, included “a heavy steel mortar and pestle, a gold pan, a long-handled pick, a magnet to separate iron from gold in the pan, a magnifying glass and a book on minerals.” [8] For a $5.00 fee, prospectors could obtain a licence that entitled them to stake nine claims of 1,500 square feet each. [9] In those days, all of the resources needed to prospect successfully could easily be bought, carried and employed by a single knowledgeable individual. To hunt, fish, and trap, meanwhile, provided both a means of subsistence and of exchange for industrious white settlers. Productive trappers could feed themselves and their families more or less reliably, and, in addition to that, sell some of their catch for cash or household goods. Although hunting and prospecting increased dependence on environmental factors, such as the population or quantity of a given resource, these occupations offered Depression migrants certain advantages that compensated for this. They required a “relatively small and simple set of productive factors that could be reproduced or purchased, and maintained, by the individual or household.” [10] Being able to set up a business easily without much capital would have been an important feature for prospectors and trappers in the context of the economic depression as access to wage employment was unreliable. In addition, prospecting and trapping are “neither capital nor energy intensive,” [11] meaning that the lower cash earnings they offered were mediated by lower costs. Furthermore, their schedules are complementary; prospecting and development took place in summer, and trapping in winter, so many of Herb Lake’s residents could comfortably engage in both. In fact, few of Herb Lake’s prospectors could have afforded to support themselves otherwise. [12]

The Economics of Everyday Living

Being a luxury item, fur tended to change in price according to general levels of economic prosperity as well as the whims of fashion. The stock market crash of 1929 and the following depression forced fur prices down to lows not seen since the war. Because gold was perceived as a secure commodity, at the same moment that fur prices went down, demand for gold sky-rocketed. Increased gold prices made the region’s low-grade ore more economical to develop. According to Rothnay and Watson, “across Canada old gold mines were revived and expanded and new ones came into being… By 1935, the value of Manitoba’s annual gold output had climbed to $5,018,551. This amounted to nearly half the value of total metal production in Manitoba.” [13] Indeed, during the thirties, gold became the mainstay of Canada’s trading economy; each year the value of gold production climbed, growing from 12.8% to 38.8% of all mineral production in the country. [14]

While high prices stimulated mining activity in Herb Lake, trapping continued, and even expanded. Rather than lowering their production in response to poor fur prices, trappers worked the area more intensively in order to compensate for their lower earnings. Local populations of fish and fur-bearing animals were vastly depleted. Although mining became the “big business” of the thirties, trapping and fishing continued to form the bulk of northern Manitoba’s employment. In 1930–1931, for instance, there were 12,364 self-employed trappers in Manitoba, and about 78.2% of the country’s fishermen, trappers and guides were self-employed. [15] Thus, both of Herb Lake’s economic mainstays, gold mining and trapping, received a boost during the Depression.

Most of the people living in Herb Lake and its surrounding area were engaged in small-scale entrepreneurial activities, particularly prospecting, mine-development work and trapping. Occasionally, wage work could be obtained from mines and construction projects, but for the most part Herb Lake’s residents laboured on a formally independent basis. [16] In the summer of 1924, just as the town’s speculative boom was reaching its peak, one government inspector described the local economy thus:

There are many employed in the building trades, in transportation, in constructing a hospital, some stores, and there are a number engaged in prospecting. It is estimated that the population is about 450, and that the payroll of the district would amount to about $10,000 per month. [17]

Surprisingly, only a small number of these people (116) were employed by mines directly. This was possible because mining, in contrast to trading furs, required enormous inputs of labour, supplies and transportation services. If there was enough mining and prospecting taking place within a concentrated area, as there was in Herb Lake, the “spinoff” effects of this business were substantial enough to support a permanent local population. In this way, Herb Lake was similar to many early mining towns. It was a supply centre that sprang up suddenly to provide the materials and services needed by the many prospectors and miners that flooded into the region after the Great War. As various prospects were developed along the east shore of the lake, tents, shacks and mining camps sprang up within the vicinity of the town’s first gold discovery. It was these mining camps that provided the nucleus for wider, more permanent settlement of the town between 1918 and 1925. Herb Lake’s population, only a few dozen during the war, rose to 450 by the fall of 1924. [18] In that year, the Canadian Mining Journal presented Herb Lake as Canada’s new mining town on the make:

The Herb Lake gold mining area in Northern Manitoba is still a hive of industry. Exploration work is being carried on at a large number of properties, and in almost every case, results have proved most satisfactory. In an almost unbelievably short time Herb Lake has graduated from an isolated northern settlement to a fully fledged mining town with hospital, school, restaurants, boarding establishments, stopping places, and many other adjuncts of a Canadian town. [19]

The businesses and facilities of Herb Lake reflected its status as a supply centre for transient prospectors, trappers and wage workers. According to a correspondent for The Pas Herald, these included three stores, a post office, two poolrooms, two restaurants, a boarding house, laundry, hospital, church and school. [20] The town also boasted an athletic association, an outdoor rink and even an orchestra. En route from the railway connection, several businesses served incoming and outgoing people with supplies. Nearby Wekusko and Hale’s Landing consisted of two restaurants, two stopping places, a lumber mill, two trucks and at least three boats. Cordwood cutting for the mines’ wood-powered steam engines also employed a number of locals on occasion. Sources also suggest that there was a significant amount of illicit business in the vicinity including prostitution and bootlegging. [21]

Gold Production in Herb Lake

Between 1914 and 1940, a large number of claims were staked and developed to various degrees, but only four of these produced gold, and only one in amounts large enough to cover the cost of production. The town’s building phase, marked by rapid, speculative population growth, was then contrasted by a prolonged state of decline, due mainly to the absence of productive mines. Although producing mines employed a small number of wage labourers in the community, employment in Herb Lake’s mines was generally unstable. Mines often went dormant or closed down for a variety of reasons including lack of capital, labour, war conditions, or, more often, low gold prices. While a very select few mines made it into production, only one of these, the Rex mine (later called the Laguna mine), proved productive enough to cover its costs. [22] Total production of Rex/Laguna at its close in 1940 amounted to 59,970 ounces of gold, valued at $2,019,973, and 6,478 ounces of silver, valued at $2,787. [23] Other mines were too small or of too marginal a grade to be significant gold producers. [24] A more substantial, although equally sporadic, source of income for Herb Lake’s residents was development work on promising claims. This type of work required large numbers of migrant wage labourers and materials that generated sudden and brief periods of growth followed by periods of inactivity between 1914 and 1940. According to C. H. Stockwell, the total output from the area prior to August 1936 (excluding the Rex mine) amounted to only 8,000 ounces of gold with a total value of about $166,000, a low yield considering how much development work had been done over the years. [25]

A building foundation is one of the few remnants of the Rex/Laguna gold mine site, 2009.
Source: Will Steinburg

The Romance and Hardships of Gold Mining in Herb Lake and Canada

Gold mining in Herb Lake, as in the rest of Canada, involved a high degree of risk. Prospectors had to do trenching and stripping to prove their finds. If the results were good, further exploration and assay work was done involving diamond drilling and sinking one or more shafts to get an idea of what lay underground. In the next, and most expensive stage, the mine would be prepared for production. This typically involved building a surface plant as well as transportation facilities. [26] In each stage, the people and money needed increased exponentially. For this reason, bringing a mine into production has been compared to a poker game, “in that the earlier stages require progressively higher stakes and full development of the operation to fill out the entrepreneur’s hand may cost several million dollars.” [27] While thousands of gold mining companies were formed in the interwar years, very few of these were money makers; in Ontario, for example, of the approximately 4,000 gold mining companies in the province before 1955, only about 35 had returned sufficient dividends to cover the cost of bringing them into production. [28] For most lenders, potentially large payoffs simply did not justify the risks. In the case of Herb Lake, this translated to consistent problems of capitalization. Few mines attracted enough investment to bring them into production quickly. Many had to be operated with local capital, either in the form of owner/operators or local investors. For example, local shareholders comprised the Northern Manitoba Mining and Development Company in Herb Lake in 1918. This company developed the Moosehorn mine and other claims. Local capital, however, was not “found sufficient to work this mining property satisfactorily.” [29] Recognizing the gravity of Herb Lake’s undercapitalization problem, the local press eagerly reported the sale of options and properties and the discovery of promising claims and assay results in an effort to bolster the region’s popularity. Newspaper reports reveal that persistent efforts were made to attract foreign investment, and frequent references to the lack of capital demonstrated that this was seen as a major obstacle to the region’s development. [30]

Since there were few restrictions on the incorporation of gold mining companies during the interwar years, many unscrupulous managers erected mills and dug shafts on their properties where the actual geological conditions did not justify these actions. This was done to raise the speculative value of their mines and in doing so, to boost the price of company stock. Generally, as mines moved closer to production, the value of the company’s stock increased. Dishonest managers, exploiting public interest in gold properties, could easily purchase bogus claims in well known districts and set up mines that amounted to nothing more than big holes in the ground. In the worst cases, fake drilling results were given. Since trading often rested on little more than the popularity of an area, instances of fraud could seriously damage a region’s reputation, driving investors away indefinitely. Unfortunately, Herb Lake was the scene of “one of the most sensational frauds [of this kind] ever perpetrated on Canadian mining.” [31] In 1924, it was discovered that Joseph Myers, director of Bingo Gold Mines Limited, which operated the Bingo mine, had been adding gold filings to the bags used for assay samples. Using the “salted” samples as evidence of his mine’s future profitability, Myers went to England where he raised £50,000. A thorough resampling by suspicious investors revealed that the mine’s high-grade ore ($24.31 per ton), was in reality only worth $1.61 per ton. [32] Myers was arrested and tried, but acquitted, since “salting” was not a crime under the current laws. High hopes for the region hinged on the Bingo mine, and its failure was a serious disappointment for Herb Lake residents. More importantly, the Bingo scandal seriously undermined the area’s credibility, effectively ending any future chance of attracting English investors there. [33]

Remains of a boiler at the Moosehorn mine site, 2009

Remains of a boiler at the Moosehorn mine site, 2009.
Source: Will Steinburg

Remains of a boiler at the Moosehorn mine site, 2009

Abandoned machinery at the Bingo gold mine site, 2009.
Source: Will Steinburg

Problems of an Unplanned Community

In 1920, R. C. Wallace, the Commissioner of Northern Manitoba from 1918 to 1921, and provincial Commissioner of Mines in 1927, noted that “the mining industry attracts large populations in a relatively short period. That population is not stable, as the average length of a mining camp is not more than twenty years.” [34] His observation was prophetic, for by 1940 Herb Lake’s last and only productive gold mine had finally closed. [35] Developing a mining camp into a town like Herb Lake was an exception to the general rule. Shacks and log cabins, hastily built by normally transient workers, made a statement of cautious optimism about a region’s productive future. Whether or not these communities were viable in the long term was an inconvenient and abstract afterthought. Unplanned communities like Herb Lake conveyed the tentative nature of mining during the interwar years. As historian Rob Robson explains, “beyond the overcrowded unsanitary living conditions, the major problem associated with the temporary townsite was its permanence. Once constructed and later augmented by further additions it took on an air of permanence.” [36] Since the mineral deposits of Herb Lake were staked out and mined by several individuals and small companies, building proceeded without any common direction or coordination. [37] Planning was not totally absent; rather, the initiative was left to individuals and private interests, without any regulation or provisions for the community and its future. [38] Houses, stores, mines, and so on were simply added on haphazardly to the existing paths and structures. Tents and houses sprang up along the lakeshore, as near as possible to the area’s mines and ore bodies. Businesses clustered around the town’s first dock and general store.

Herb Lake, like other pre-1930 mining communities, was plagued by a number of problems stemming from its sudden creation. Housing was often insufficient and poorly built. Most homes and stores were built by their owners, using local materials as much as possible. [39] What health care was available was not well equipped to deal with serious emergencies such as an outbreak of flu. [40] Placement of buildings could be inefficient or unsanitary, and on occasion conflicts emerged between mine managers and residents over the location of certain businesses and houses. [41] One resident, for example, built a large barn in the town’s cramped centre. [42] Transient labourers were another persistent problem. Although the town experienced a serious dearth of labour during and immediately after the war, the Depression led to an oversupply; unemployed drifters who arrived in town to find work frequently had to be sent away. [43] The absence or neglect of infrastructure and municipal services was, perhaps, the most problematic aspect of life in Herb Lake. The town had no sanitation facilities, no clean drinking water and no firefighting equipment. [44] Roads were simply winding mud paths. The lack of numerous other services, usually taken for granted in cities, was a constant source of irritation. For example, one resident recalled that:

The usual mode of travel at Herb Lake in the winter was by dog team, and since dogs were not needed in summer they were allowed to run free. The dogs were often aggressive and were not used to being with people. In town they could become a danger to young children; dog fights were annoying and the constant yapping was an irritant to the community. Herb Lake people always watched where they walked because of the mud, but dog defecation posed another hazard. [45]

Establishments erected to serve the recreation and leisure needs of surrounding work-camps suggest that Herb Lake had its share of “notorious camp followers.” [46] Pool halls, beer parlours, and “blind pigs” (illegal taverns selling bootlegged liquor) offered a range of activities catering to the interests of so called “bunkhouse men.” These places provided working-class men with male-centred diversions, both legitimate and otherwise. Attractions included gambling, drinking and sports such as boxing and hockey. Taken together, they demonstrate that a “homosocial” male, working-class culture was predominant in the community. [47] Mine managers complained that some of these businesses threatened the discipline of their camps and the emerging community. For example, federal timber inspector W. S. Gordon reported that

There are a number of houses [in Herb Lake] starting upon the claims of both these companies, and they contend (the Companies) that some of the occupants are a menace to the Mine Workers, and are in a way irresponsible, being Bootleggers and Pool Room Owners…On the [Bingo] Company property there is one Poolroom close to the mine, that is now being operated, three log and two frame buildings as well as three cabins and two shacks, the latter two having been sold, it is alleged to Bootleggers. There are similar buildings on the Rex Mining Company property. [48]

Well into the interwar period, southern reformers and morality squads maintained that drunkenness, brawling and self-indulgence were commonplace in remote work-camps. According to Forestell, “the fact that many of the region’s inhabitants were male, working class, and immigrant, with a tendency towards political radicalism, directly contributed to its perception as a dangerous and chaotic place.” [49] A social culture based on self-indulgence and moral laxity was seen as a predictable result of labouring in isolated northern camps. As Edmund Bradwin explained in his biography of work-camp life entitled The Bunkhouse Man,

Men… are deprived during months at a stretch of the companionship of women, of home ties, and all that elevates life in a man; they are starved by isolation and monotony. When they again reach the outskirts of civilization, the frontier town with its “aurer,” lights, its music and noisy hilarity entices them from their deepest resolves. Vice too frequently pervades such places and, in diverse haunts, drugged potions aid in “rolling” the victim. [50]

Beer parlours and pool halls were considered dangerous influences on impressionable females and children. According to the Manitoba Government Liquor Control Act of 1928, a partition was required to separate the sexes if women were to drink in the same space as men. [51] Yet these places were often the only accessible space in which miners and bunkhouse workers could gather and socialize. Aside from outdoor rinks and the occasional dance, opportunities to fraternize in a more wholesome atmosphere were seriously limited.

Gender and the Mythology of Settlement Life

This unruly male social culture earned frontier communities a notorious reputation in the south. As Karen Dubinsky has noted, conceptions of the northern frontier were heavily influenced by contemporary ideas of gender and morality. During the Victorian period constructions of the region portrayed mining towns as places of corruption and social disorder, largely due to their position beyond the fringes of the metropole’s moral and legal authority. [52] “The ‘civilized’ rural south could only assert its moral superiority by contrasting itself to something else, by creating an immoral adversary in the cities in the North. Thus as the rural south got ‘cleaner’, the North became ‘dirtier’.” [53] Reformers and moral authoritarians created an image of the north as a dangerously immoral, uncivilized place of vice. [54] Meanwhile, perceptions of the north were also connected to popular ideas of gender—the concept that certain places had a masculine quality, while others were more feminine in character. The northern frontier was seen as a harsh and demanding environment that naturally favoured more individualistic and masculine aspects. Its challenging environment was thought to require “a special breed of men—men of rugged physique, indomitable courage, and resourcefulness,” [55] hardy frontiersmen, voyageurs, prospectors, and so on. It was a place of “men’s men,” who “slept upon the ground, saw the stars by night and were lulled by the winds of the forest.” “Such as he”, Bradwin wrote for instance, “will readily wager his days and weeks in a contest with the elements.” [56] This north was a romantic, exotic place, a refuge for society’s adventurers, misfits, and independent minds, full of audacious and heroic characters.

Contrary to this notion, there is evidence that women in Herb Lake had a sustained and substantial influence in the development of the region. Although prospecting and mining were largely considered to be the reserve of men, women were considerable contributors to prospecting in the area. In fact, numerous claims in Herb Lake were staked by women. [57] The most notable of these was Rice Island, staked by Miss Kathleen Rice and her partner Dick Woosey. Miss Rice was well known in the area as a successful, full-time, female prospector. [58] Sources suggest that most women worked in collaboration with their husbands. Geologist Russell McIntosh recalled that local prospector Tom Webb and his wife operated their small mine together: “Webb did the mining and his wife did the hoisting.” [59] And in a similar instance, Mary Hale, who ran a stopping place with her husband at the south end of the lake, was reported to be “an industrious prospector and the best poker player in the country.” [60]

While men could earn wages as labourers in Herb Lake, cash-earning opportunities for women were limited. Entrepreneurial women were typically engaged in domestic-type services in exchange for income—i.e., running of boarding houses, restaurants, teaching—sometimes in partnership with husbands, sometimes not. These services were in demand due to the town’s large proportion of single men, who lacked the set of vital services usually provided by the unpaid labour of wives and mothers. Sophie May Ryan, also known as “The Diamond Queen,” for example, ran a boarding house at Wekusko. According to Sydney Augustus Keighley, “she provided rooms and meals for trappers and miners.” [61] Her services, Keighley says, were an asset to local prospectors; “many times she gave grubsteaks to trappers who needed a helping hand and she was always ready to help them out.” [62] Entrepreneurial activities for women also included services that were not part of the “official” market system, such as prostitution and blind-pigging. These services were a feature of life in many early mining towns. According to Nancy Forestell, such activities were often “tacitly accepted,” but not officially recognized. [63] In her study of Timmins, Ontario, she explains that “sexual relations were largely a matter of monetary exchange in the public realm between male, working-class residents and female prostitutes in the early mining camps.” [64] Since prostitution and bootlegging were illegal, it can be difficult to ascertain conclusively the extent of these businesses in a given area. However, in regard to Herb Lake, there are a few sources that provide some evidence. For example, in his autobiography, Sydney Augustus Keighley recalls meeting “Box Car Annie, a prostitute and bootlegger, doing very well in both her businesses. There were also characters named Cutthroat Rosie, and Jewish Rosie.” [65] Arnold David Hoffman similarly recalled “Klondike Jessie,” a local woman who ran a blind-pig near Cold Lake (next to Sherridon) and did some pimping. [66]

A New Era: “Manpower Planning” and the Predominance of Industrial-Scale Mining

During the Depression, the mining industry proved its worth. By 1929–1930, Manitoba’s mining companies were spending over $1,000,000 per month in Winnipeg on locally manufactured or distributed goods. [67] Despite the poor market price of copper, production of the metal peaked in 1932, during the height of the Great Depression. [68] As industrial mines came on stream in the early thirties, the value of mines producing metals in Manitoba increased several fold, from $3,427 in 1927 to $8,186,190 in 1931, and $12,000,000 in 1933. [69]

Manitoba’s considerable growth was due to mines that specialized in the industrial-scale production of base metals (zinc, nickel, copper). These mines were extremely advanced and only possible in the context of a wider industrial network. Their mining and milling program required large-scale use of sophisticated machinery, and the recovered metals were used to manufacture high-tech products such as cars, military vehicles and equipment, and industrial machinery. To create and maintain a high-tech mine and mill, a network of external support systems was needed; machinery and expertise had to be imported from urban industrial centres, and the high-bulk-per-dollar-value of base metals meant their extraction and transportation were possible only with the use of hydroelectric dams and railroads. Such a sophisticated arrangement of capital, technology and labour was beyond the scope of any individual, small company, or even a single community acting in isolation.

Within this context, the company town emerged as the pre-eminent model of northern settlement. In contrast to Herb Lake, life in company towns was structured around a single mode of production, a single commodity and a single company. Settlement of the town was directed by capital in ways that were consistent with industrial discipline and the goals of optimal efficiency and profit maximization. The company town of Sherridon, Manitoba, created by Sherritt Gordon Mines Ltd. provides a good example of this arrangement.

Planning and construction of Sherridon took place in the 1920s (roughly concurrent with the formation of Herb Lake). The town’s design was meant to reinforce economic and ideological connections with the urban south. All of the technologies, infrastructure, conveniences and comforts typically found in southern centres was imported into the remote wilderness. The company’s own management was seen as the best way to ensure a stable, satisfied workforce, and to avoid problems normally found in other frontier mining towns like Herb Lake. Like many other company towns, Sherridon was developed on the principle of “manpower planning”—planning motivated by the need to maintain a loyal and disciplined labour force to operate an industry. [70] Construction of the town reflected the company’s realization that, “in order to attract a desirable class of employees… they must be provided with proper living conditions, and that provisions be made for modern comforts and conveniences.” [71] As Robson has noted, Sherritt Gordon’s decision to develop and manage the townsite as an adjunct to the mine introduced a new phase of frontier settlement. [72] Manpower planning reflected the company’s ability to call on a wider range of resources available in urban industrial areas in order to recreate a southern-style community in the remote north. Just as Sherritt Gordon’s mining operation was created on the cutting-edge of the industry, the community built by Sherritt Gordon demonstrated its commitment to modernization and a high standard of efficiency.

Company reports clearly state, “there is no doubt that the development cost of the town of Sherridon will be repaid to the company over the life of the mines, through attracting a better class of employees.” [73] By forming a “loyal and efficient crew” via the maintenance of “a modern and well equipped townsite”, it was hoped that the company could avoid problems associated with having a “transient and dissatisfied force of employees” of the kind seen in Herb Lake. [74] The company actively suppressed “promiscuous squatting” within the town’s perimeter and attempted to construct a “properly organized community” consistent with, or even in advance of, the highly industrialized, ordered society seen in the south. [75] The following passage provided by town manager C. R. Neely is telling of how the company attempted to create a model social space:

The town of Sherridon is remarkably free from the parasites often found in mining towns…[and] people who would not qualify as desirable citizens… [and] Sherritt-Gordon has managed to secure a better than average class of employee. This can be attributed to the various employee benefits. Wages are good. The men have their own organization, the Welfare Committee…Each employee is insured for life and sickness, half the cost being borne by the company. An annual holiday of one week with pay is granted to all employees. An intensive safety campaign is in force, resulting in a low accident rate. [76]

The Decline of Herb Lake, 1945–1960

Lack of capital and the low productivity of mines had always capped the amount of development that could take place in Herb Lake, but once its low-grade ore was matched with poor gold prices following the Second World War, the town experienced a gradual decline. Eventually this once-promising mining town was overshadowed and replaced by the more modern, industrial gold mining operation in nearby Snow Lake.

While the Second World War was a boon to industrial base metal mines, it effectively ended the short-lived era of independent gold mining in Manitoba. Gold was not seen as an essential commodity for the war effort, so the federal government took measures to channel labour and machinery into higher priority industries connected with allied armament production; the number of producing gold mines was reduced and the price of gold was fixed. Due to higher overhead costs and a fixed price, most small producers were effectively squeezed out of the gold mining business. [77] The post-war period offered no relief. In 1951, the federal government allowed gold to be sold at market prices once again. This stimulated activity for a short time, but the price collapsed in 1953 and gold mining again entered a period of decline lasting until the 1970s. Under these conditions, Herb Lake’s already lagging economy collapsed just as a new mine and townsite were being developed in nearby Snow Lake under the direction of Nor-Acme Gold Mines Limited.

Unrequited Visions and the Limits of Northern Settlement

Today, places like Herb Lake no longer exist. Changing methods of resource extraction have drastically altered patterns of settlement and daily life in northern communities. Herb Lake’s decline in the late 1930s demonstrates a permanent turn in northern settlement that took place in the interwar years, a move away from self-employment and small-scale resource extraction models to the all-encompassing entity of the company town. The presence of furs and a limited amount of “free gold” enabled Herb Lake’s residents to work on a formally independent basis as prospectors, trappers, entrepreneurs and small-scale producers. This particular combination of resources and production methods allowed individuals and several small mining companies to eke out a modest living using little more than a select few tools and machines, some learned skills, and the physical and mental capacity to work. Because the settlers and Depression-era migrants who set up shop in Herb Lake went unchecked by regulations or any kind of coordinating body, development of Herb Lake proceeded in a disorganized, improvised fashion. Like many early Canadian mining towns, Herb Lake’s formation was directed by individuals who acted according to the perceived needs of the area’s residents and mines, without a comprehensive plan to avoid problems such as poor sanitation, lack of infrastructure and services, and an unruly social culture.

Although the frontier tends to be seen as a place of self-sufficiency and independence, this has never been so. Staple resource commodities such as metals, lumber and furs are the lifeblood of northern communities; their survival is intimately linked to world demand for these primary products. Life in these communities was governed by a complex set of factors beyond the control of their inhabitants. In both Herb Lake and Sherridon, mineral prices based on perceived world supply and demand dictated the course of development. Settlement was a speculative undertaking based on the expectation of high prices; although high prices occasionally generated spurts of rapid economic development and population growth, low prices acted against the communities’ interests, suspending or terminating production. To put it simply, instability and dependence were a fact of life in these communities. Geographic isolation did not soften the tumults of war or economic depression that took place in this era; in fact, it is clear that the communities felt these dramatic swings of fortune more violently than most other places.

A view of Herb Lake, October 1938.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Natural Resources Collection, Series 1, #51.


1. Douglas Durkin, The Lobstick Trail: A Romance of Northern Canada. Toronto: Musson Book Company, 1921, pp. 20-21.

2. J. A. Campbell, Manitoba’s Northland. The Pas: Office of the Commissioner of Northern Manitoba, 1918, p. 16.

3. Jim Mochoruk, Formidable Heritage: Manitoba’s North and the Cost of Development, 1870 to 1930. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2004, p. 293.

4. Campbell, 1918, p. 13.

5. “It is now seen that the possession of sources of the metals required for the of war is of vital importance, and when it is attempted to draw up a list of these it appears that in some way or other they are nearly all required. This national need of metals in times like the present becomes so insistent that other considerations, including that of cost, have to be put to one side.” From “The Development of Mineral Resources of the British Empire” by William Frenchville, professor of Mining at the Royal School of Mines, London. Quoted in Campbell, 1918, p. 47.

6. “The fall of the price of wheat from an average price of $3.19¾ a bushel in December 1920 to one of $1.10¾ a bushel in August 1922…The price was to continue at unprofitable levels until 1924.” Drought in southwestern Manitoba from 1919-1923[this sentence is an orphan, or part of quotation?]. Industrial unemployment rose to hitherto unknown levels in 1921 and 1922. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967, pp. 380-381.

7. Morris Zaslow, Northward Expansion of Canada, 1914-1967. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988, p. 101.

8. Ladyslipper News, Fall 2000, p. 1.

9. Mines Branch, Department of Mines and Natural Resources, A Guide for Prospectors in Manitoba. Winnipeg: Queen’s Printer, 1952.

10. Peter J. Usher, “The North: Metropolitan Frontier, Native Homeland?” in L. D. McCann, ed., A Geography of Canada: Heartland and Hinterland. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1982, p. 421.

11. Ibid.

12. Zaslow, 1988, p. 103.

13. Russ Rothnay and Steve Watson. A Brief Economic History of Northern Manitoba. Winnipeg: Department of Northern Affairs and Resources, 1975, p. 36.

14. “By the end of the thirties, gold bullion was second only to newsprint…among Canada’s commodity exports. The value of non-ferrous metal exports represented 32.1% of Canada’s total by 1938-9, and alone practically equaled in value the full range of agricultural products exported…by 1939-40 wheat ranked no higher than third in dollar terms among Canada’s exports, behind newsprint and gold bullion. After wheat came nickel in fourth place, copper in fifth.” (Zaslow, 1988, pp. 127-128.)

15. Rothnay and Watson, 1975, p. 37.

16. “Formally independent” meant that they were officially self-employed but occasionally contracted themselves out as seasonal wage workers on railroad construction, logging camps, and so on. (Rothnay and Watson, 1975, p. 30).

17. National Archives of Canada (hereafter NAC), RG 85, Vol. 1855, #141652, “Department of the Interior Memo: C. S. Spence to Mr. Rowatt, November 20, 1924.”

18. The Pas Herald, 31 October 1924.

19. The Canadian Mining Journal, 7 November 1924. Also see Northern Miner, 26 July 1924: “Buildings surrounding the post office are springing up like mushrooms and building operations at other points make Herb Lake a very busy camp.”

20. The Pas Herald, 31 October 1924.

21. Subtle references to prostitution can be found in some news articles and journals. For example, one newspaper report mentions “a certain unaccompanied lady well known in The Pas and Herb Lake” who did not pay her fare between Hale’s Landing and Wekusko (The Pas Herald, 8 August 1924). The same newspaper also makes reference to the illegal sale of alcohol and other problems with liquor.

22. “From 1917-1927 small mines were operated for short periods with indifferent success in the Province, most important of which was the Rex, whose sporadic production to the end of 1927 when it was suspended was $211,688… while it was the first important gold producer in the province it has not proven a financial success.” (Benjamin Franklin Townsley, Mine-Finders: The History and Romance of Canadian Mineral Discoveries. Toronto: Saturday Night Press, 1935, p. 131.)

23. A Guide for Prospectors, p. 99. Information on other producing mines, the Ferro and Gurney mines, can be found in R. G. Zahalan, The Mines of Manitoba. Winnipeg: Manitoba Culture, Heritage, and Citizenship, Heritage Grants Program, 1990. For information on all claims and mines of note, see M. A. J. Fedikow, Mineral Deposits and Occurrences in the Wekusko Lake Area: NTS 63 J/13. Winnipeg: Manitoba Energy and Mines, Geological Services, 1993.

24. A Guide for Prospectors in Manitoba, 1952, p. 99.

25. C. H. Stockwell, Gold Deposits of Herb Lake Area, Northern Manitoba. Ottawa: Department of Mines and Resources, 1937, p. 1.

26. Roy M. Longo, Historical Highlights of Canadian Mining; Including Canadian Personalities. Toronto: Pitt Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 145-146.

27. Zaslow, 1988, p. 101.

28. Kenneth Coates and William Morrison, eds., The Forgotten North: A History of Canada’s Provincial Norths. Toronto: Lorimer, 1992, p. 49.

29. This problem was resolved when the Makeever brothers of Boston bought an interest in the property. (Campbell, 1918, p. 17.)

30. Even during the height of Herb Lake’s popularity as a mining district, newspapers frequently reported problems of insufficient capital. The articles “No English Capital for Canadian Mines” (The Pas Herald, 10 November 1924) and “What About Capital?” (The Northern Miner, 26 July 1924) provide instructive examples of the frustrations faced by Canadian gold miners during these years.

31. Townsley Mine-finders …, 1935, p. 145.

32. Ibid., p. 143.

33. Optimistic reports on the Bingo mine came out in The Pas Herald almost daily in the summer and fall of 1924. On the importance of the Bingo mine, see especially 14 November 1924.

34. R. C. Wallace, “Report of the Commissioner of Northern Manitoba for the year ending December 1, 1919,” Sessional Papers of the Legislative Assembly: Manitoba, 1920, p.7.

35. This does not include the Ferro mine, which produced sporadically until 1960, although in much smaller amounts than Rex (see Fig. 1).

36. Rob Robson, “Flin Flon: A Study of Company-Community Relations in a Single Enterprise Community.” Urban History 12, February 1984, p. 33.

37. Douglas Baldwin, “The Development of an Unplanned Community: 1903-1914”, in Little Communities Big Industries, Roy T. Bowles, ed. Vancouver: Butterworth & Co. Ltd., 1982, p. 112.

38. Gilbert A. Stelter and Alan F. J. Artibise, “Canadian Resource Towns in Historical Perspective,” in Little Communities Big Industries, Roy T. Bowles, ed. Vancouver: Butterworth & Co. Ltd., 1982, pp. 47-60.

39. Newspaper accounts contain references to workers building “shacks” near the mines (e.g., The Pas Herald, 5 December 1924). Nancy Forestell explains that, “the most serious obstacle to relocating families continued to be a lack of housing. Although cheap boarding house rooms were plentiful, single family dwellings were constantly in short supply.” (Nancy Forestell, “Bachelors, Boarding-Houses, and Blind Pigs: Gender Construction in a Multi-Ethnic Mining Camp, 1909-1920,” in A Nation of Immigrants: Women, Workers, and Communities in Canadian History, 1840-1960s, Franca Iacovetta with Paula Draper and Robert Ventresca, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, p. 257) and “Their residences were often little more than poorly constructed shacks, lacking even a rudimentary separation between sleeping and eating spaces.”, ibid., p. 262.

40. Flu created serious problems. During the 1930s, Women of the Order of Bishop’s Messengers provided nursing. (R. B. Horsefield, “Willows and Hard Rock: An Account of a Century of Missionary Work in Northern Manitoba.” The Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society, vol. 3, no. 4, February 1958, p. 7. Unsanitary bunkhouse conditions undoubtedly contributed to the problem.

41. Archives document arguments between mine developers and residents over land upon which they have settled. In 1936, for example, the director of surveys in Herb Lake noted that “practically all the land area of the Papyrus M. C. [mineral claim] is taken up by the townsite.” Archives of Manitoba (hereafter AM), GR 1600/ G4579, #31.1.2, “Mineral Claims of Herb Lake Area, 1931-56.”

42. The Pas Herald, 12 December 1924.

43. The Pas Herald, 19 December 1924.

44. Houses and mines were often lost in fires (e.g., The Pas Herald, 12 December 1924). In 1942, one Herb Lake owner/operator lost all his property in a single fire, but it is difficult to tell if his was a typical example (AM, GR 1600/ G4579, #31.1.2). The Health Department also noted the town’s need of a water tower and water services, (ibid.).

45. Ladyslipper News, Summer 1999, p. 2.

46. Taking Dawson as an example, Stelter and Artibise observe that speculative settlement in early mining towns often involved the full set of “notorious camp followers, the promoters, the drifters, lawyers, gamblers, and prostitutes.” (Stelter and Artibise, 1982, p. 50).

47. “Extending out from the masculine environment of the mine, a homosocial working class culture was formed that involved a range of male-centred pursuits such as drinking, gambling, sports, and associational life…These pursuits upheld a public culture based on self-indulgence and male privilege. Moreover, they reinforced a male gender identity that placed a greater emphasis on ‘rough’ expression of masculinity, and less on ‘respectable’ elements such as breadwinning.” (Forestell, 1998, p. 252).

48. NAC, RG 85, vol. 2028, # 175517, “W. S. Gordon, Timber Inspector to J. Tod, Acting C. T. A. Winnipeg, August 13, 1924, Dauphin.”

49. Forestell, 1998, p. 251.

50. Edmund W. Bradwin, The Bunkhouse Man: A Study of Work and Play in the Camps of Canada, 1903-1914. New York: Columbia University Press, 1928, p. 163.

51. Geoffrey Bernard Toews, “The Boons and Banes of Booze: The Liquor Trade in Rural Manitoba, 1929-1939. Manitoba History, no. 50, October 2005), p. 20.

52. Dubinsky explains that the term “imaginary geographies” reflects how certain areas become associated with “particular values, historical events, and feelings.” (Karen Dubinsky, Improper Advances: Rape and Heterosexual Conflict in Ontario, 1880-1929. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 145). Adding to this notion, she explains that, “Rob Shields suggests that binary opposition between high and low culture, a staple of European civilization, has sometimes been specialized geographically as the “central/marginal dualism” (ibid., p. 152).

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Zahalan, 1990, p. 88.

56. Edmund. W. Bradwin, The Bunkhouse Man: A Study of Work and Play in the Camps of Canada, 1903-1914. New York: Columbia University Press, 1928, p. 203.

57. See C. H. Stockwell, Gold Deposits of Herb Lake Area, Northern Manitoba. Ottawa: Department of Mines and Resources, 1937; and Mineral Deposits and Occurrences in the Wekusko Lake Area, NTS 63J/13. Winnipeg: Manitoba Energy and Mines, Geological Services, 1993.

58. A description of Herb Lake would be incomplete without mention of its most famous eccentric, Kathleen Rice. Miss Rice was born of a well-to-do Loyalist family in St. Mary’s, Ontario. She received her BA from the University of Toronto in 1906 and taught in Ontario and Saskatchewan. In 1913 she homesteaded in The Pas and made her way into Herb Lake trapping and prospecting. She staked several claims, some with her partner Dick Woosey (of Moosehorn mine fame). After her partner’s death she lived alone for twenty years and wrote a thesis on the Aurora Borealis and some articles. She committed herself to an asylum in Brandon, where she died in 1964. See Alma Mardis, Snow Lake’s Centennial Salute to the Trailblazers. Snow Lake, Man., 1967.

59. Ladyslipper News, Fall 2000, p. 6.

60. Alma Mardis, Snow Lake’s Centennial Salute to the Trailblazers. Snow Lake, Man., 1967.

61. Sydney Augustus Keighley, Trader, Tripper, Trapper: the Life of a Bay Man. Winnipeg: Rupert’s Land Research Centre in co-operation with Watson & Dwyer Publishing Co. Ltd., 1989, p. 21.

62. Ibid.

63. Forestell, 1998, p. 263.

64. “The sources do suggest that prostitution was neither well organized nor contained within a discreet geographical area or ‘red light’ district. Instead, women were dispersed in several of the hotels in the central business area, and more commonly in shacks along the Mattagami River outside the town boundaries. Yet the informal tolerance of prostitution by the local police and community at large…points to the widespread tacit acceptance, if not the existence, of sexual commerce.” (Forestell, 1998. p. 263.)

65. Keighley, 1989, p. 21.

66. Arnold David Hoffman, Free Gold: The Story of Canadian Mining. New York, Toronto: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1947, p. 12.

67. Mochoruk, 2004, p. 294.

68. Innis, Harold A, “Settlement and the Mining Frontier,” in Canadian Frontiers of Settlement, vol. 9, W. A. Mackintosh and W. L. G. Jeorg, eds. Toronto: MacMillan, 1936, p. 403.

69. Ibid.

70. Robert Robson, “Flin Flon: A Study of Company-Community Relations in a Single Enterprise Community.” Urban History, vol. 12, February 1984, p. 44.

71. Staff. Sherritt Gordon Mines Ltd., “History, Development, and Production Plans at Sherritt-Gordon Mines. Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Transactions, XXXIII (1930), p. 269.

72. “When in 1928 the Sherritt Gordon Company…undertook to regulate townsite affairs, this in effect concluded the era of the temporary townsite and foreshadowed the greater participation of the company in townsite development.” (Robert Robson, “Manitoba’s Resource Towns: The Twentieth Century Frontier”, Manitoba History, no. 16, 1988, p. 5.

73. Staff. Sherritt Gordon Mines Ltd., “History, Development and Production Plans at Sherritt-Gordon Mines”, p. 269.

74. Sherritt-Gordon. Annual Report, 1930.

75. Ibid.

76. C. R. Neely, “Managing the Town of Sherridon”, Precambrian, XIII, March 1940, p. 17.

77. Correspondence between Herb Lake owner/operator Oswald MacDonald and J. S. MacDonald, Minister of Mines and Natural Resources in 1942, offers an instructive example. After a fire destroyed his mine in May of that year, O. MacDonald was forced to abandon it. “Taking into consideration the general trend of gold mining as an industry” he stated, “I am compelled to seek other fields.” AM, GR 1600/ G4579, #31.1.2.

Page revised: 6 January 2017

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